Signing Up to Face My Fear: 7 Days of Silence

This post originally appeared on The Huffington Post 08/26/12

This is Ellie Knaus' first post in her meditation retreat series.

I've grasped for approval my whole life. It started in elementary school, when I felt certain that gold stars, blue ribbons, and auditoriums full of clapping strangers could fill me up, make me whole. There were benefits to being a goody-two-shoes, like science fair prize money and a fan club of other people's grandmothers. But feeding on external validation is like living off a vending machine: We can survive -- for a while at least -- but it's a sticky, limiting, and unsatisfying existence. I was able to break the habit while attending a women's college, where I awakened my inner conviction and exercised a loud mouth. But when I moved to Los Angeles to be an actress, seeking the approval of others became my job. And after a long casting drought, I began to live carefully in the imagined shadow of other people's judgments, my instincts muddled by apprehension. I wanted to trust my instincts again, regain my confidence. So this summer I signed up for a weeklong silent meditation retreat at Spirit Rock in Northern California; there would be no talking, no music, no writing, no phone calls, no Internet, and no eye contact with other retreatants. When I received confirmation that I had been accepted into the "Essential Dharma Retreat," I wanted to throw up, which was a sign that I was off to the right start.

"What does your husband say about this?" my mother asked over the phone, concerned for my marriage. She suspected I was having an Eat, Pray, Love meltdown. It seemed to Mom that divorcing "The Nice Guy" had become de rigueur for young women embarking on spiritual journeys. She cited Oprah's Book Club memoirists Elizabeth Gilbert and Cheryl Strayed (Wild). I assured her that my husband was in support of the retreat. He wanted his independent wife back, the one he had married before I stopped trusting my instincts, before I had internalized years of rejection as an actress in Los Angeles. Still, the whole retreat thing seemed too hippy-dippy, too "Kumbaya" for Mother. But for once, I wasn't taking a vote; other people's disapproval was irrelevant. And so I shared motives that she might find comforting, telling her that I had chosen the meditation retreat in order to a) focus my mind and b) cultivate loving-kindness. She countered that a) going to law school would focus my mind and b) giving her grandchildren would cultivate loving-kindness. As we got off the phone, I could hear her typing. I'm pretty sure she was Googling "Spirit Rock" and "cult?"

I remembered watching Dharma & Greg and hearing a lot of talk of the Dharma Initiative on Lost, but I was clueless as to what dharma actually meant. This was troublesome as I had, after all, signed up for the "Essential DHARMA Retreat." According to the Spirit Rock Meditation Center, dharma is "the deepest truth of life, beyond words and concepts." So, it's explained as being unexplainable. That cleared things up.

I had taken a beginner mindfulness meditation class this spring, but at Spirit Rock, we'd learn the Buddhist tradition of vipassana meditation. (I was pretty sure that Buddhists felt that everyone was special, but maybe, since vipassana starts with V.I.P., we could be the most special.) In Meditation for Beginners, Spirit Rock founder Jack Kornfield writes that, in the Pali language, "vipassana" means "to see things as they really are." Clearly, I needed vipassana.

In the week leading up to the retreat, when a girlfriend emailed, I hope you find what you are looking for, I felt queasy and exposed. The very act of going on a retreat implies that you are in search of something. But aren't we all? Others called it "extreme." Most said, "I could never do that." What are we so afraid of discovering when we shut up and unplug? For me, it was the fear that self-critical thoughts would devour me. That when I let go of my everyday life and creature comforts -- family, pets, girlfriends, podcasts, books, Trader Joe's, and Twitter -- I'd unravel in the unknown. It wasn't long before my chronic second-guessing kicked in.

To calm down, I could engage in a) meditation or b) retail therapy. I compromised and drove to REI to shop for comfy meditation clothes. I was preparing for stay-away camp, like in grade school, except in grade school I had been excited to join a new tribe and proud that I had never gotten homesick. Now, I hadn't even left yet, and I was already homesick. As I tried on hiking pants in the dressing room, my anxious mind started churning again. Why am I someone who feels compelled to do this? Why can't I just be fearless and whole already? And why am I weird, but not weird enough not to care that I'm weird?!

The afternoon before I was to leave, my acting manager called to report that the theatrical agency I had interviewed with had chosen not to represent me. I thanked him and hung up. Teetering on the precipice of a shame spiral, I stopped myself. I didn't need to internalize their rejection. I didn't have to take this setback as a value judgement on my self-worth. I could change these painful habits; that's what going on this retreat was all about. Gosh, it feels good to be a recovering kiss-ass! And then I cried, but only for a minute.

While packing, I asked my husband, "Think blow-dryers are allowed at the silent retreat?" He laughed and looked at me like I might not survive the week. I wasn't getting any votes of confidence. And that's exactly how it was supposed to be. A people-pleaser can't go off in search of inner strength with everyone patting her on the back. Totally unsure of myself, but open to discovery, I leaned into the fear and headed North to Spirit Rock.